Poetry, Music, Art and the Mystic Experience
Last week I wrote Nature Mysticism, about the ways nature triggers and nurtures our spiritual connection, and how different traditions have viewed it. This week I am shifting to the human-made realm – art. Specifically, art that is created to represent and share a spiritual moment, journey, or truth.
Just as mystics from every spiritual tradition have appreciated nature, and the ways it can shift, humble, awe, and awaken us, so too have many attempted to convey their experiences through creations of poems, music, paintings and more. Spiritual art of this type has the power to transmit realizations directly to us, as if we share in the artist’s journey.
I’m not personally an artist, in that I don’t really seem to have a gift for transmitting through creations of this type, but I have a deep appreciation for them. What follows are my own musings on art that touches me, that connects me to my spiritual side, and shifts me into my mystic awareness. I encourage you to share your own favorites in the comments….
I included a haiku by the Zen master Basho in the Nature post, and Zen haiku is beautiful art form designed to capture a moment of epiphany, or kensho. While I’m not sure kensho can or should be described in philosophical terms, I’ll give it a go: A moment where union is felt, where the division between ourselves as a subject and the world as an object falls away, and we experience reality and our awareness as one fluid stream.
Haiku is definitely an acquired taste, and strives to create an image of sudden awakening. Brevity is its strong suit (and not mine, which is probably why I appreciate it so much!) Here’s a famous one by Basho:
frog jumps in
Other haiku evoke images of the deep stillness lying within the seeming bustle of our lives and minds:
On a rock in the rapids
a fallen camellia
Haiku is by no means the only form of spiritual poetry, as many poets capture simple truths that would be difficult to describe in prose, as in this little gem by Emily Dickinson:
To live is so startling,
It leaves little time for
Other poems describe the subtleties of our inner life, and of the spiritual journey itself, as in one of my favorites, Mary Oliver’s The Journey (too long to include here, but I encourage you to click through.)
Moving beyond words, and beyond the parts of our minds that are constrained by words and rational thought, is a key element of the mystic process, and for that there is nothing quite like music. Music can transport us, taking hold of our emotions, and even our bodies when we dance. But music isn’t just about emotion. Just as it can move us beyond words, it can also move us beyond emotions, opening doorways to states of awareness – dimensions really – that we might not find any other way. This is particularly true of music created specifically for this purpose, as in that created for meditating or other contemplative practices. Consider:
The mystery and sense of raw existence evoked by Tibetan Singing Bowls (by Nancy Hennings)…
The devotion and passion of the classic Hindu chant Om Namah Shivaya (here put to music by Deva Premal)…
Or the haunting power of Gregorian Christian Monks Chanting…
From these examples to Gospel music to shamanic drumming, music and rhythm have been used throughout human history to evoke experiences in our awareness that we just can’t quite capture in words. (And for an interesting contemporary experiment in this, check out 100 Musical Footsteps, where blogger and composer ggw_bach is attempting to create 100 musical compositions, each tied to a spiritual theme or experience – he’s on number 35 as of this writing.)
Visual art can do the same thing through our eyes – it can create or open doorways to whole new worlds for us. For me, the luminosity of Maxfield Parrish’s paintings always evokes the sense of longing underlying the spiritual impulse:
(Yes I know, Parrish is so popular in spiritual circles it’s almost cliche, but sometimes popularity actually does correspond to depth).
And of course, every religion humanity has created has had some form of religious art. One of my favorite forms is Tibetan Buddhist mandalas, exquisite and detailed renderings that utilize sacred geometry and complex symbolism to represent and transmit pure states of enlightenment:
The symbols used in mandalas convey their own layers of meaning, and symbols in general are powerful mystic tools. They are shortcuts to our deeper awareness, conveying volumes of meaning through a single glance. Gaze each of these spiritual/mystic symbols, and monitor your own internal reactions, each a reflection of your own history and knowledge of the truths or traditions they are meant to represent:
So, what are your favorites? What poetry/music/art/symbols move you, shift you, open you, awaken you? What artists best represent your own spiritual or truthful moments? Please share…
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